The Long Shadow of the Falklands War

"Why did Argentina pick a fight with a country that had nuclear weapons?"

Editor’s Note: Please see previous works by Robert Farley including: Asia’s Greatest Fear: A U.S.-China War, Five Revolutionary Soviet Weapons of War that Never Happened, The Five Most Overrated Weapons of War, and America’s Troubled F-35: Five Ways to Replace It.

The Falklands War ended with a decisive British victory over thirty years ago.  Nevertheless, the war remains alive in the imagination of analysts and historians. Although the conflict happened outside of the normal “zones of crisis,” it has long held the attention of students of warfare.  The war, which involved a conflict over territory between two established nation-states with large, capital intensive military establishments, seems almost quaint today.  However, the issues that brought about the war, the manner in which the war was fought, and the situation the war left behind continue to hold important lessons for practitioners of foreign policy today.

The Belgrano

The Falklands War remains the only conflict in which a combatant has used a nuclear submarine, in anger, against naval targets.  On May 2, 1982, HMS Conqueror detected the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano and two escorts outside a previously announced “exclusion zone.” The British had informed Argentina that the exclusion zone no longer applied to Argentine warships, and Belgrano was conducting an active military patrol at the time. Conqueror fired three unguided torpedoes, two of which struck the venerable cruiser, sinking it with 323 of its crew.  The sinking hardened Argentine attitudes, and ended any serious effort at international mediation.

Over the years, the sinking of the Belgrano has set the stage for some truly terrible commentary, much of it centering on the role played by Margaret Thatcher.  Partisans point to Thatcher’s keen decisiveness in ordering the attack, when in fact Thatcher had virtually no role in the tactical decision-making.  Critics (most with a poor understanding of the Law of Armed Conflict) suggest that the sinking amounted to a war crime. Such claims would need to look up to see “specious,” and the Argentine Navy has always held that the sinking represented a lawful act of war.

Nevertheless, the enduring controversy over the sinking of the Belgrano has become emblematic of the ways in which conventional acts of war have become legally complex.  Policymakers and military personnel pay ever greater attention to the ways in which tactical decision-making has become legally actionable in a variety of different venues. Even relatively conventional military activities have become subject to litigation, often decades later.

Apart from legal and political considerations, the sinking of Belgrano demonstrated the decisive impact of modern submarines.  Without an effective anti-submarine capability, a surface fleet faces grim prospects.  After Belgrano sank, the Argentine fleet largely refused to sortie out of fear of other British submarines.  This concern continues to color the efforts of the Chinese, Russian, and Indian navies to shore up their anti-submarine capabilities.

Legal Irredentism

The legal issues associated with ownership of the Falklands remain turgid.  Without delving too deeply into the claims and counter-claims, the United Kingdom probably has the stronger argument on balance, although London’s periodic disinterest in governing the islands has helped keep Argentine hopes alive.  The meat of Argentina’s claim lies mostly in the reality that the islands are far closer to Buenos Aires than to the United Kingdom, which comports with a variety of international obligations associated with maritime governance. The issues remain of interest to many other countries because of the plethora of conflicts over the historical ownership of disputed islands. 

One thing we know is that virtually no one currently living in the Falklands wants to be Argentine. It’s unclear how much this matters, however, as states regularly ignore the preferences of 1600 citizens when it suits them to do so.  The United Kingdom focuses on the self-determination point, although it does not apply the principle with consistency to all international disputes.

In any case, Argentina’s draped-in-anti-colonial-rhetoric claims regularly win the support of most Latin American countries, not to mention the overwhelming majority of the Argentina population.  These same claims continue to find little support in the United Kingdom, with most European countries remaining distinctly on the sidelines.  Debates over the law continue to structure how we look at the islands, but apparently cannot determine which country will control the islands in the future.  This state of affairs is reminiscent of a host of other conflicts, in which the law sets the terms without charting a useful settlement.

Minimal Carrier Aircraft

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